It’s a sh*tty motto, but I’m starting to think that mine must be: “if it doesn’t hurt, it isn’t worth it” — the following may be of limited interest, an account of my recent bushwalk, with some photos I took along the way.
I hit the road on my bike before dawn, and was on an empty Mountains train by 7am. I wanted to beat the heat, forecast to be over 36ºC (97ºF) so I didn’t stop for my usual second breakfast of a service-station sausage roll and small coffee. Instead, I raced through the sleepy streets of Faulconbridge like a man on a mission. I gave a woman walking her three-legged dog a nasty fright, scorching past her downhill at 60kph. Her curses were just background noise among the chiming bellbirds. I felt smug and purposeful. I’m going bushwalking!
By way of background for those not from here, they’re called the Blue Mountains because that’s how they appear from a distance. Blue and mountainous. We’re told it has something to do with the eucalyptus forests steaming some mystic oil into the air, but it’s probably blue for the same reason the sky is blue. It sure doesn’t stay blue when you get up close, then it reverts to green in tooth and claw.
Leaving Faulconbridge means hill climbs, and for every uphill there’s a (wheeee!) downhill. Then another uphill and — whee! — a downhill. Then another bloody uphill. Casual reminders that you’re in your 40’s now, out of breath and could maybe work on the cardio a little. Leaving the bitumen, you hit bush track proper, where the downhills are rocky and rutted, and often dump you into deep, wheel-turning sand. But I make it without mishap, thanks to a great bike and my meagre cycling skills. Barely an hour from the station and I’m at the trackhead and enjoying spectacular views. But I’m up here, and I’ve got to get down there.
After hiding my trusty bike in the scrub, I stop for a hydration-break which involves standing on top of a high rocky shelf in the forest and peeing on the fern fronds far below while my electrolyte tablet fizzes out of existence in my titanium cup. Than done, I hit a track which divides natural onto three sections. The hard part is followed by the harder part, and then comes the hardest part. The beauty of my system is that it’s accurate both ways. And don’t allow the siren song of morning light threading the forest to illuminate a stand of bracken seduce you. This is green hell. And I may/may not have just peed on that bracken…
So far I’ve encountered a crapload of birds, ants, skinks, and more birds, but what my radar is really pinging for is the common brown snake. It just wouldn’t be bushwalking without one, but then I’m distracted by birdsong. You’d think all the birds of the forest are in one spot warming up ahead of a concert, but no, it’s a single male Superb Lyrebird. Just by listening to him I know I’m in deep, because there are no chainsaws or barking dogs in his repertoire. He’s so impressive that I almost step on my brown snake, right there on the path in open woodland just before the trail drops into the rainforest. Skittish, skinny as my finger, about 50cm long and just as deadly as a 3m adult, I give it wide berth. But where there’s one snake there are hundreds, so my eyes are glued to every step.
I press on through a sea of bracken so tall it comes over my head, cross the same creek three times, then arrive at the final part of the track, involving a trio of short cliff descents which I negotiate clumsily with my pack on. In the process, I wreck my phone! It’s just became an expensive hike. The remaining leg is a precipitous 65-75 degree descent over about 500m, which doesn’t sound much until you’re the one doing it. When my feet hit bottom, my knees are wobbling and there’s sweat dripping off my earlobes. Looking back up the way I came, I think thank the primordial pagan forest-spirits that it’s over. The hard work of the day is done: time for some rest and relaxation — or so I think.
I follow a faint footpad along the side of the valley to my secret campsite: an elevated shelf of flat rock hidden among the trees with one extra special feature — it’s own natural spring. Everything you could want, except today I’d like more shade and a cool breeze. I’m feeling heat exhausted in a big way and just want to rest; but the camp won’t set itself up, so I drink the remainder of my water and pitch my tent. I build a camp chair of my own design and think about collecting firewood, but can’t manage it.
My heat-addled brain, rather than directing me to crawl into my tent to hydrate and rest, suggests I grab my fishing rod and camera and throw myself back into the scrub, exploring a kilometre north to where a dry creek bed leads me down to the river. After a half-hearted effort with the rod during the hottest and most unfishy part of the day, I give up. The sun starts to dip, casting a hot white light on the eastern bank. I get a bit fixated on a tree growing out of a crack between two slabs, so I rock-hop to a boulder in the middle of the torrent and try to avoid falling in. Gotta get this pic. As if I need photographic evidence that life is a tenacious bastard.
I spend some time exploring the opposite bank. Usually inaccessible unless you swim across, it’s a jumble of smoothed boulders and spits of sand and gravel. The cliff face above me has contributed to the riverine jumble, and the thought of camping under the overhang gives me a chill. The cliff probably hasn’t calved in a hundred years, but it would be just my luck. But then I’m distracted by river pebbles. More photogenic when they’re wet, even dried-out they’re beautiful. A better photographer would have not to let his shadow fall across half of them, but I’m not that guy.
With no fish and only a few dodgy photos for my efforts, I slog back to my camp and collapse in a puddle of sweat and trembling limbs, and some hours pass where I do nothing more than inhale and exhale. Eventually I cook a meal of dehydrated pasta bolognese, a big effort that fills my overheated body with hot food. Normally I’d take my pots and pans down to the river and wash everything out, but today, with the energy of a feverish kitten, I tie them up in a plastic bag and leave them outside while I curl up to rest. A good night’s sleep, that’s what I need. I’ll be right in the morning. Ha.
By about 2am its cool enough to put on a shirt. By 3am, pants and socks. I never get into my sleeping bag, and my pillow keeps deflating. From about 10pm, rats start pulling apart my plastic bag and foraging through my cooking pots. One noisily drags an empty foil wrapper across my campsite into a hole in the rock shelf. Another skitters around the head of my tent, scratching at the fabric to get at the scroggin mix I have in with me. A gigantic huntsman spider crawls up and over the apex of my shelter. Something four legged crashes around on the forest floor below my ledge. I sleep for maybe an hour, then wake up, then sleep for another two. I love the bush, but this is testing my own tenacious bastardy.
By dawn I’ve had enough. If this were a party of two or more, there would have been a fire, some beverages, and jolly banter to lighten the evening. Misery shared is misery halved. With a plus-one I could have gone swimming and cooled right down. But this is a solo adventure, and it is dangerously hot and humid. Heatstroke was not what I came here for, so I decide to strike camp as early as possible, to fill my water bottle and hit the track. For the first time ever, I’m not enjoying myself. I just want to go home. Beautiful spot, but not when it’s so hot even the granite feels like its sweating.
Despite my lack of sleep and tired legs, I’m like a monkey up the cliffs, and race up the track in record time. “Gee I’m getting fit!” is not the answer: it’s my awesome new pack. Then, like a wave goodbye, there’s the body of a large possum in the middle of the track, ripped neatly in half. Only a couple of hours old, Bear Grylls would have licked his lips and started munching. But without a paying audience to impress, I leave it behind wondering what out here could bite a possum in half like that. I’m still thinking about that. I’m preoccupied by the thought, almost so much that I forget to turn around and say goodbye to my final glimpse of the river.
The rest is a blur. I am at the trackhead again, and hugely relieved to find my bike hasn’t been stolen, or dragged off by some possum-bisecting carnivore that is now going to stalk me all the way back to civilisation. In no time flat I’m on the trail, gritting my teeth at every uphill, clinging on for dear life with every downhill. The bitumen road, when I reach it, is shimmering and tacky with heat — and it’s only 10am! I don’t bypass the service-station this time — a litre of Gatorade and one semi-fresh pastry later I’m reclining with my pack off at Faulconbridge station, waiting for the city-bound train. I’m not going to die. That’s all I can think. I’m sunburnt. I stink. I know people are giving me strange looks, like “You must be mental.” And they are right. I must be mental. But this is what I do for fun. Because if it doesn’t hurt, it isn’t worth it.